Archive for the ‘Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 1-9’ Category

The Martyrdom of the Fifth and Sixth Brothers   Leave a comment

Above:  Icon of the Mother and Her Seven Sons

Image in the Public Domain





2 Maccabees 7:15-19

4 Maccabees 11:1-27


As usual, 2 Maccabees focuses on theology and is succinct.  Also as usual, 4 Maccabees gives up philosophy, theology, and graphic descriptions of torture.

A few main points stand out in my mind:

  1. Again, brothers about to die told King Antiochus IV Epiphanes he would suffer in the afterlife (2 Maccabees 7:17, 19; 4 Maccabees 11:3).
  2. Descendants of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes were also going to suffer divine punishment (2 Maccabees 7:17).  Is this an echo of intergenerational reward and punishment (Exodus 20:5-6)?  (Ezekiel 18 argues for individual responsibility before God and against intergenerational reward and punishment, by the way.)  Or were those descendants going to suffer for their sins?
  3. God has not abandoned the persecuted Jews (2 Maccabees 7:16).
  4. 2 Maccabees (in 6:12-17; 7:18)  teaches that this persecution was a form of divine punishment of Israel for sins.  I chose not to write about this point when I covered 2 Maccabees 6, for I was focusing on other matters.

Let us–you, O reader, and I–unpack this last theological point.  Who (plural) sinned to bring on this punishment, allegedly?  Were pious Jews, especially the ones who willingly suffered and died rather than violate kosher food laws in the Law of Moses–suffering because of the sins of impious Jews.  Or were these pious Jews suffering because of the perfidy of King Antiochus IV Epiphanes and those who did his bidding?

Rabbi HIillel quoted Rabbi Jose son of Rabbi Judah:

Precious are chastisements, for the name of God rests upon him to whom chastisements come.

The Wisdom of Solomon, a book roughly contemporary with 2 Maccabees, disagrees somewhat with the interpretation of the suffering of pious Jews in 2 Maccabees:

By acting thus you have taught a lesson to your people

how the virtuous man must be kind to his fellow men,

and you have given your sons the good hope

that after sin you will grant repentance.

If with such care and such indulgence you have punished

the enemies of your children,

when death was what they deserved,

and given them time and room to rid themselves of wickedness,

with what attention have you not judged your sons,

to whose ancestors you made such fair promises by oaths and covenants.

Thus, while you correct us, you flog our enemies ten thousand times harder,

to teach us when we judge, to reflect on your kindness

and when we are judged, to look for mercy.

–Wisdom of Solomon 12:19-22, The Jerusalem Bible (1966)

Furthermore, according to the Wisdom of Solomon 11:1-14, the righteous receive benefits through punishments.  Adding the Wisdom of Solomon 12:9-10 to the mix, we read that God permits pagan nations time to repent.  However, according to the Wisdom of Solomon 12:23-27, divine mercy follows divine judgment.  And as Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 5:4-9 warns us, do not assume divine indulgence to be an entitlement.

I recognize Deuteronomic theology of collective suffering when I read it.  That theology exists in 2 Maccabees and the Wisdom of Solomon.  That theology is the Hebrew Biblical party line regarding the causation of the Babylonian Exile.  And that theology may not apply in all circumstances.

We who identify as devout have a responsibility to be careful in how we think, speak, and write about God.  On one hand, we ought never to try to domesticate God.  On the other hand, we must refrain from depicting God as a monstrous figure worthy of our dread and unworthy of praise and adoration.  We have an obligation not to depict God as being abusive.  How can we draw people to the sole deity if we present that deity as an abuser?  Theodicy, poorly executed, quickly devolves into idiocy.

Perhaps the Jews suffered under King Antiochus IV Epiphanes because he was a bastard intolerant of cultural diversity.









Two Stories of Elisha   Leave a comment

Above:  Bears Destroy the Mocking Children

Image in the Public Domain





2 Kings 2:19-25


With all your might love your Maker,

and do not forsake his ministers.

–Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 7:30, Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition (2002)


A spiritual mentor of mine in the 1990s has continued to influence me.  Whenever Gene analyzed any Bible story, he did so based on the question,

What is really going on here?

One barrier to determining what is really going on here is thinking differently than the people who originally told the stories.  I do not propose to forsake science and other categories of knowledge–far from it!  The ignorance of ancients should not limit the intellectual horizons of anyone who has a pulse.  However, I, as one trained in history, seek to crawl inside the heads of dead people, so to speak.  Then, maybe, I can learn what the text says, what is really going on.

I focus on the story of Elisha and the spring first.  Competing scientific theories offer to explain the problem with that spring.  One theory points to the existence of radioactive springs in the region of Jericho.    This is a geological explanation; water passes through radioactive rock strata.  The water, therefore, becomes radioactive.  Sterility is one side effect of drinking the water.  A competing theory points to the presence of freshwater snails in come springs in the region.  The snails carry a disease that causes high rates of infant mortality.

Regardless of the natural scientific explanation of the problem with the spring, one ought to ponder the difference between the mindset that seeks to explain the problem and the mindset from which the Biblical text emerged.  Ancient Hebrews cared more about the question, “Who?” than the question, “Why?”  A modern, scientific, rationalistic mindset points to the logical problem of making water drinkable by adding salt to it.  I sympathize with that modern, scientific, rationalistic mindset.  I also know that this mindset was alien to the tradition that repeated this story.  The ancient Hebrew mindset assumed that God made the spring water drinkable via Elisha.  That was enough, in that context and from that perspective.   Also in context, the reference to a new dish indicated a magical ritual to symbolize a complete break with the past–with the curse of Joshua (Joshua 6:26), to be precise.

2 Kings 2:23-25 is a disturbing story.  As much as I discourage insulting people for being bald, I disapprove more of the ideas that Elisha cursed rude children and that God sent two bears to maul them.  A note in The Jewish Study Bible indicates that the story emphasizes the importance of treating the man of God with respect.

So, what is really going on here?  The story tells us that Elisha, en route to Mount Carmel (from 1 Kings 18), had full prophetic authority.  Elisha’s ministry offered, in the words of Choon-Leong Seow, writing in Volume III (1999) of The New Interpreter’s Bible,

the possibility of blessings or curses, life or death.

God, acting through Elisha, blessed and worked for life in verses 19-22 and cursed and caused death in verses 23-25.  Elisha called upon God.  God had the power to decide how to act then to act.  Elisha had no control over God.

Nobody controls God.  Fine.  I accept that.  I take comfort in that.  I still reject the suggestion that God sent bears to mangle children.  Then again, I think differently than those who told this story originally.  Their perspectives do not define my point of view.





King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and Naboth’s Vineyard   Leave a comment

Above:  The Stoning of Naboth

Image in the Public Domain





1 Kings 21:1-29


Do not give yourself to a woman

so that she gains mastery over your strength.

–Ecclesiasticus/Sirach 9:2, Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition (2002)


King Ahab of Israel (Reigned 873-852 B.C.E.)


This is a story about perversion of justice, complete with forging evidence, making a false allegation, arranging for perjury, and having an innocent man executed–for a vineyard.  This is an account of the perfidy of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel, both responsible for the death of Naboth and the seizing of his vineyard.  This is a tale of two very wealthy and powerful people not being content with what they had.

King Ahab’s offer to swap vineyards was legal, according to Leviticus 25:29-30.  Naboth, however, had no obligation to accept the proposal.  And he was attached to his inheritance.  That was Naboth’s right.  Besides, Naboth was no fool.  He, a man of independent means, had no desire to become a royal dependent and to reduce his status and that of his family.  Who would want to become a dependent of people of such bad character anyhow?

As one reads the Bible closely for a while, one notices recurring themes.  A few of them recur in this story.  The first theme I notice in 1 Kings 21 is using the letter of the law to cover up perfidy.

The dynamic in the royal marriage is also clear in this story.  Queen Jezebel’s domineering ways are plain.  I do not insist that a wife submit to her husband and that he lord over her.  No, I am too progressive to argue for that chauvinistic standard.  However, I note that Queen Jezebel’s domineering ways worked for injustice in I Kings 21, and that King Ahab was complicit.

On the surface, King Ahab’s offer to exchange vineyards seemed reasonable.  However, the plot to frame Naboth, convict him, execute him, and seize his land was never justifiable, not even superficially.  Nowhere did the Law of Moses forbid cursing a monarch.  Naboth’s sons also died (2 Kings 9:26).  King Ahab and Jezebel had the blood of more than one person on their hands in this case.

Looking ahead, 2 Kings 9 concludes much of the unfinished business in 1 Kings 21.  Perspective is essential when reading the Bible.  To use an anachronistic term, 1 Kings 21 leaves a few Chekhovian guns hanging on walls.  One of them fires in 1 Kings 22.

Another recurring theme in 1 Kings 21 is that we reap what we sow.  Repentance and remorse delay the timing of the sowing, but they do not prevent it.

One may also recognize a recurring theme regarding the falls of dynasties of the northern Kingdom of Israel, going back to the House of Jeroboam I and continuing with the House of Baasha.

The world is rife with injustice, much of official, therefore cloaked in institutional legitimacy.  Power often wears down those who do not have it.  When authority figures who should protect the rights of the people violate those rights, to whom can the people turn for justice?  The promise that God will depose a son of those who trample the people–or just some of the people–may seem like cold comfort indeed.







Loving God II: Following Jesus and Loving God   1 comment

St. Peter

Above:  Mosaic of St. Peter

Image Source = Jose Luiz


The Collect:

Almighty God, you gave us your only Son

to take on our human nature and to illumine the world with your light.

By your grace adopt us as your children and enlighten us with your Spirit,

through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 20


The Assigned Readings:

Proverbs 8:32-36

Psalm 148

John 21:19b-24


Kings of the earth and all peoples,

princes and all rulers of the world;

Young men and maidens,

old and young together.

Let them praise the Name of the LORD,

for his splendor is over earth and heaven.

He has raised up strength for his people

and praise for all his loyal servants,

the children of Israel, a people who are near him.


–Psalm 148, The Book of Common Prayer (1979)


If you love me you will obey my commandments; and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another to be your advocate, who will be with you for ever–the Spirit of truth.

–John 14:15-17a, The Revised English Bible (1989)


“Follow me,” Jesus says in John 21.  Lady Wisdom (“Sophia” in Greek), some of whose characteristics overlap with those of the Word (the Logos) of God in John 1, offers life-giving wisdom in Proverbs 8.  The awe of God is the beginning of wisdom in a person of wisdom in a person (Sirach/Ecclesiasaticus 1:14).  Sophia, in the context of Proverbs 8, is the female personification of divine wisdom.  Divine strength has male personification.  The combination of these metaphors points to a genderless figure we call God.  Nevertheless, the use of gendered metaphors relative to God proves useful in human cultural contexts, so who am I to object?  As long as know we are using metaphors, we will avoid certain theological excesses and errors.

Sometimes the best way to relate to God is via metaphors.  In private prayer I address God simply as “you,” but maybe even that is too anthropomorphic to be literally true.  I must say something, though.  I have chosen to embrace the mystery of God, use metaphors, and stand in awe of God, who is so far beyond me as to exceed my capacity for comprehension.  I have chosen to follow to Jesus day after day, even though I know I will never understand the mechanics of the incarnation.  Salvation, however, is not a matter of knowledge.

One can love another without understanding the other.  One can embrace a sacred mystery and strive to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself.  One can love God fully without passing a canonical examination.  There is much none of us will comprehend.  That is fine.  But do we love God, who loves us?





Adapted from this post:


Tested in the Fire   1 comment

Above:  Fire


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22 (Revised English Bible):

To the angel of the church at Sardis write:

These are the words of the One who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars:  I know what you are doing; people say you are alive, but in fact you are dead.  Wake up, and put some strength into what you still have, because otherwise it must die!  For I have not found any work of yours brought to completion in the sight of my God.  Remember therefore the teaching you received; observe it, and repent.  If you do not wake up, I will come upon you like a thief, and you will not know the moment of my coming.  Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not polluted their clothing, and they will walk with me in white, for so they deserve.  Anyone who is victorious will be robed in white like them, and I shall never strike his name off the roll of the living; in the presence of my Father and his angels I shall acknowledge him as mine.  You have ears, so hear what the Spirit says to the churches!

To the angel of the church at Laodicea write:

These are the words of the Amen, the faithful of God’s creation:  I know what you are doing; you are neither cold nor hot.  How I wish you were either cold or hot!  Because you are neither one nor the other, but just lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.  You say, “How rich I am!  What a fortune I have made!  I have everything I want.”  In fact, though you do not realize it, you are a pitiful wretch, poor, blind, and naked.  I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire to make you truly rich, and white robes to put on to hide the shame of your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so that you may see.  All whom I love I reprove and discipline.  Be wholehearted therefore in your repentance.  Here I stand knocking at the door; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and he and I will eat together.  To anyone who is victorious I will grant a place beside me on my throne, as I myself was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne.  You have ears, so hear what the Spirit says to the churches!

Psalm 15 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1 LORD, who may dwell in your tabernacle?

who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right,

who speaks the truth from his heart.

3 There is no guile upon his tongue;

he does no evil to his friend;

he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.

In his sight the wicked is rejected,

but he honors those who fear the LORD.

5 He has sworn to do no wrong

and does not take back his word.

6 He does not give his money in hope of gain,

nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.

Whoever does these things

shall never be overthrown.

Luke 19:1-10 (Revised English Bible):

Entering Jericho Jesus made his way through the city.  There was a man there named Zacchaeus; he was superintendent of taxes and very rich.  He was eager to see what Jesus looked like; but, being  a little man, he could not see him for the crowd.  So he ran on ahead and climbed a sycomore tree in order to see him, for he was to pass that way.  When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said,

Zacchaeus, be quick to come down, for I must stay at your house today.

He climbed down as quickly as he could and welcomed him gladly.  At this time there was a general murmur of disapproval.

He has gone in to be the guest of a sinner,

they said.  But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,

Here and now, sir, I give half my possessions to charity; and if I have defrauded anyone, I will repay him four times over.

Jesus said to him,

Today  salvation has come to this house–for this man too is a son of Abraham.  The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.


The Collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Some Related Posts:

Week of Proper 28:  Tuesday, Year 1 (More About Zacchaeus):

Lord, Help Us Walk Your Servant Way:


My Son, if you aspire to be a servant of the LORD,

prepare yourself for testing….

Bear every hardship that is sent you,

and whenever humiliation comes, be patient;

for gold is assayed in the fire,

and the chosen ones in the furnace of humiliation.

–Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 2:1, 4-5, Revised English Bible

The church at Laodicea  was lukewarm and overconfident in its wealth.  It was really nothing but a chapel of complacency.  But the church is not supposed to function as a chapel for the complacent.  At least the church at Sardis tried to so something.  Unfortunately, it did not finish anything.  Zacchaeus, in contrast, committed to a course of action, one which exceeded the minimum qualifications under the Law of Moses.

There is frequently a cross-fertilization between religion and culture.  Sometimes culture dilutes excellent religious principles.  Consider racism, for example.  One of the classics is H. Shelton Smith’s In His Image, But…, a book about racism in Southern U.S. religion.  That title summarizes the hypocrisy of racism in religion, does it not?  And Philip Yancey, in Soul Survivor:  How My Faith Survived the Church (2001), beginning on page, 11, writes about recovering from the racism he learned in church and culture in the Deep South of the 1950s and 1960s.  He writes:

As a child I did not question the system we lived under because no one around me questioned it.  (page 13)

Bigotry of any form has no legitimate place in Christianity.  It might be acceptable within one’s culture or subculture, but ought never find approval within the church.  When religion soaks up the worst of culture, religion has ceased to be salt in the world.

So, embracing love for our fellow human beings and devotion to Jesus, may we follow him.  We will stick out when we do this, and may we do so positively.  And may we complete what we have begun, regardless of the humiliation and other hardship we may face because of our actions for God.  Then we will be true to the crucified one.






Adapted from this post:


Misguided Possessiveness and Factionalism are Unwise   1 comment

Above:  Wisdom, by Robert Lewis Reed (1896), at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 4:11-19 (Revised English Bible):

Wisdom raises her sons to greatness

and gives help to those who seek her.

To love her is to love life;

those who rise early to greet her will be filled with joy.

He who holds fast to her will gain honour;

the Lord’s blessing rests on the house she enters.

To serve her is to serve the Holy One,

and the Lord loves those who love her.

He who is obedient to her will give true judgement,

and, because he listens to her, his home will be secure.

If he trusts her, he will possess her

and bequeath her to his descendants.

At first she will lead him by torturous ways,

filling him with craven fears.

Her discipline will be a torment to him,

and her decrees a hard test,

until he trusts her with all his heart;

then she will come straight back to him,

bringing gladness and revealing to him her secrets.

But if he strays, she will abandon him

and leave him to his fate.

Psalm 119:161-168 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

161 Rulers have persecuted me without a cause,

but my heart stands in awe of your word.

162 I am as glad because of your promise

as one who finds great spoils.

163 As for lies, I hate and abhor them,

but your law is my love.

164 Seven times a day do I praise you,

because of your righteous judgments.

165 Great peace have they who love your law;

for them there is no stumbling block.

166 I have hoped for your salvation, O LORD,

and I have fulfilled your commandments.

167 I have kept your decrees

and I have loved them deeply.

168 I have kept your commandments and decrees,

for all my ways are before you.

Mark 9:38-41 (Revised English Bible):

John said to him,

Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and as he was not one of us, we tried to stop him.

Jesus said,

Do not stop him, for no one who performs a miracle in my name will be able the next moment to speak evil of me.  He is not against us is on our side.  Truly I tell you:  whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you are followers of the Messiah will certainly not go unrewarded.


The Collect:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this wicked and godless age, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

–Jesus in Mark 8:38 (Revised English Bible)

and this:

I now understand how true it is that God has no favourites, but that in every nation those who are god-fearing and do what is right are acceptable to him.

–Simon Peter in Acts 10:34-35 (Revised English Bible)

God works through and speaks to and through a wide variety of people.  Many of them are unlike you, O reader, or me.  Yet they are of God, too.  So, how will we respond to them.  I know how we should respond; we should welcome them and give thanks for them.  We might even be able to collaborate with some of them now and again.  But will we exhibit a positive response or attempt to shut them down, as the Apostles did?

Ben Sira explains that divine wisdom, personified as female, is both comforting and challenging, delightful and capable of tough love.  (The psalmist agrees.)  This writing comes from a place of lived and mature spirituality; it recognizes that discipline is part of God’s love for us.  If we persist faithfully, however, we will learn the lessons God has in mind for us.

The Apostles needed to learn such lessons.  They reported discouraging a successful exorcist who was not of their religious opinion in Mark 9:38.  Yet, in Mark 9:18, they failed in their attempts at exorcism.  Were they protecting their turf and criticizing unjustly one who could do what they could not?  This other fellow’s success did not trouble Jesus, though

He who is not against us is on our side.

Our Lord and Savior did not pay undue attention to divisive labels and artificial categories.  Neither should we.

Human thoughts do not limit divine wisdom.  This is a challenging realization, one that acting upon can lead to scorn, if not persecution.  But, as Jesus said,

Blessed are you when people hate you and ostracize you, when they insult you and slander your very name, because of the Son of Man.  On that day exult and dance for joy, for you have a rich reward in heaven; that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

–Luke 6:22-23 (Revised English Bible)

So be it.





Adapted from this post:


Righteousness and Suffering   1 comment

Above:  Orthodox Icon of Jesus at Golgotha, by Theophanes the Cretan (1500s)


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 2:1-11 (Revised English Bible):

My son, if you aspire to be a servant of the Lord,

prepare yourself for testing.

Set a straight course and keep to it,

and do not be dismayed in the face of adversity.

Hold fast to him and never let go,

if you would end your days in prosperity.

Bear every hardship that is sent you,

and whenever humiliation comes, be patient;

for gold is assayed in the fire,

and the chosen ones in the furnace of humiliation.

Trust him and he will help you;

steer a straight course and fix your hope on him.

You that fear the Lord, wait for his mercy;

do not stray, for fear you will fall.

You that fear the Lord, trust in him,

and you will not be baulked of your reward.

You that fear the Lord, hope for prosperity

and lasting joy and favour.

Consider the past generations and see:

was anyone who trusted the Lord ever disappointed?

Was anyone who stood firm in the fear of him ever abandoned?

Did he ever ignore anyone who called to him?

For the Lord is compassionate and merciful;

he forgives sin and saves in time of trouble.

Psalm 112 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):


Happy are they who fear the Lord

and have great delight in his commandments!

2 Their descendants will be mighty in the land;

the generation of the upright will be blessed.

3 Wealth and riches will be in their house,

and their righteousness will last for ever.

4 Light shines in the darkness for the upright;

the righteous are merciful and full of compassion.

It is good for them to be generous in lending

and to manage their affairs with justice.

6 For they will never be shaken;

the righteous will be kept in everlasting remembrance.

7 They will not be afraid of any evil rumors;

their heart is right;

they put their trust in the Lord.

8 Their heart is established and will not shrink,

until they see that desire upon their enemies.

9 They have given freely to the poor,

and their righteousness stands fast for ever;

they will hold up their head with honor.

10 The wicked will see it and be angry;

they will gnash their teeth and pine away;

the desires of the wicked will perish.

Mark 9:30-37 (Revised English Bible):

They left that district and made their way through Galilee.  Jesus did not want anyone to know, because he was teaching his disciples, and telling them,

The Son of Man is now to be handed over into the power of men, and they will kill him; and three days after being killed he will rise again.

But they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask.

So they came to Capernaum; and when he had gone indoors, he asked them,

What were you arguing about on the way?

They were silent, because on the way they had been discussing which one of them was the greatest.  So he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,

If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself the last of all and servant of all.

Then he took a child, set him in front of them, and put his arm round him.

Whoever receives a child like this in my name,

he said,

receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.


The Collect:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Consider the Lukan version of the Beatitudes, from the Sermon on the Plain:

Blessed are you who are in need;

the kingdom of God is yours.

Blessed are you who now go hungry;

you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now;

you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you and ostracize you, when they insult you and slander your very name, because of the Son of Man.  On that day exult and dance for joy, for you have a rich reward in heaven; that is how their fathers treated the prophets.

But alas for you who are rich;

you have had your time of happiness.

Alas for you who are well fed now;

you will go hungry.

Alas for you who laugh now;

you will mourn and weep.

Alas for you when all speak well of you;

that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.

–Jesus in Luke 6:20-26 (Revised English Bible)

Then reread Sirach 2:1-11 and Psalm 112.  They are quite different, are they not?

Prosperity Theology is a heresy.  Love God and get rich and be healthy, is says.  This a simplified version of that line of thought, but Prosperity Theology is an oversimplification itself.  Part of good Biblical interpretation is balance.  For example, we are sinful (That is in the Bible.), but we also bear the image of God (That, too, is in the Bible.).  So it is heretical to state we are either equivalent to pond scum (to the exclusion of the image of God) or that we are “a little lower than the angels” (to the exclusion of our sinfulness).  One needs to weigh Biblical subtleties intelligently.

As a student of history, I know of the Northern Renaissance, an offshoot of the Italian Renaissance.  I consider myself a partial product of the Northern Renaissance, which favored following the example of Jesus more than ecclesiastical doctrines and dogmas.  So, with that mind, let us consider the example of Jesus in today’s reading from Mark.  He foretells his arrest, torture, execution and resurrection.  He uses plain language to do this.  The Apostles do not understand, but they are afraid to ask for an explanation. They have, however, been debating among themselves which is the greatest.  The greatest, Jesus says, is the lowliest in society–the servant and the child, in particular.

Which examples might Jesus use if he were giving this teaching today?  I suspect he would speak of immigrants, foster children, minimum-wage employees, and other vulnerable, powerless people.  This is my list, for I am North American.  If Jesus were delivering this teaching in India, he might say that anyone who welcomes a Dalit receives God.

It is vital to inject the reading from Mark with contemporary analogies.  Otherwise, we might not face the raw power of the teaching of Jesus, surely the most righteous man who ever lived.  And what happened to him?  We know the answer to that question, do we not?  If Jesus had lived in more modern times, we might not have crosses in churches; we might have replicas of an electric chair, a gas chamber, or a noose in churches.  Clarence Jordan translated the story of Jesus into the Southern U.S. idiom in his Cotton Patch versions of the Gospels.  Jordan’s Jesus died during a lynching.

Yet it is also true that, as Ben Sira tells us, gold is tested in the fire, and the righteous ones of God in the furnace of humiliation.  I am fortunate that I live in a nation and a society in which I can worship freely.  My society is not perfect, as outbreaks of blind, irrational, and hateful Islamophobia, especially in Republican Party politics demonstrate.  (I write on the eve of the 2010 U.S. midterm elections.)  But we, as a society, are more tolerant than are many others.  If I were Christian in southern Sudan or anywhere in Iran, for example, I would certainly be at great risk of religious persecution.  For such Christians the reading I quoted from Luke is a potent reality.  Yet discipleship, even for a persecution-free Christian such as myself, must entail sacrifice.  And I must not mistake popularity with divine approval.

These are difficult readings from the Gospels.  Jesus challenges us to follow his example, wherever that takes us and regardless of the cost to ourselves.  But this is the path to holiness.  I have noticed many Lutheran churches named “Cross and Crown” or “Cross of Life.”  Such labels are spiritually correct.  I invite you, O reader, to ponder them and what you might have to sacrifice for the sake of righteousness.

And may the love of God flow through you and to all your fellow human beings, for everyone is a child of God.  Some are more rebellious than others, to be sure, but all stand in the need of grace and bear the image of God.  May love, not intolerance, characterize those of us who claim the label “Christian.”  The way of cross is not the path of hatred and other forms of intolerance.





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Awe   1 comment

Above: Lauterbrunnen Valley, in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland


Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 1:1-10 (Revised English Bible):

All wisdom is from the Lord;

she dwells with him for ever.

Who can count the sands of the sea, the raindrops, or the days of unending time?

Who can measure the height of the sky,

the breadth of the earth, or the depth of the abyss?

Wisdom was first of all created things;

intelligent purpose has existed from the beginning.

To whom has the root of wisdom been revealed?

Who has understanding of her subtlety?

One alone is wise, the Lord most terrible,

seated upon his throne.

It is he who created her, beheld and measured her,

and infused her into all his works.

To everyone he has given her in some degree,

but without stint to those who love him.

Psalm 93 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

The LORD is King;

he has put on splendid apparel;

the LORD has put on his apparel

and girded himself with strength.

He has made the whole world so sure

that it cannot be moved;

Ever since the world began, your throne has been estabished;

you are from everlasting.

4 The waters have lifted up, O LORD,

the waters have lifted up their voice;

the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

Mightier than the sound of many waters,

mightier than the breakers of the sea,

mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.

Your testimonies are very sure,

and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,

for ever and for evermore.

Mark 9:14-29 (Revised English Bible):

When they came back to the disciples they saw a large crowd surrounding them and scribes arguing with them.  As soon as they saw Jesus the whole crowd were overcome with awe and ran forward to welcome him.  He asked them,

What is this argument about?

A man in the crowd spoke up:

Teacher, I brought my son for you to cure.  He is possessed by a spirit that makes him dumb.  Whenever it attacks him, it flings him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth, grinds this teeth, and goes rigid.  I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.

Jesus answered:

What an unbelieving generation!  How long shall I be with you?  How long must I endure you?  Bring him to me.

And they brought the boy to him; and as soon as the spirit saw him it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked his father,

How long has he been like this?

He replied,

From childhood; it has often tried to destroy him by throwing him into the fire or into water.  But if it is at all possible for you, take pity on us and help us.

Jesus said,

It is possible!  Everything is possible to one who believes.

At once the boy’s father cried:

I believe; help my unbelief.

When Jesus saw that the crowd was closing in on him, he spoke sternly to the unclean spirit.

Deaf and dumb spirit,

he said,

I command you, come out of him and never go back!

It shrieked aloud and threw the boy into repeated convulsions, and then came out, leaving him like a corpse; in fact, many said,

He is dead.

But Jesus took hold of his hand and raised him to his feet, and he stood up.

Then Jesus went indoors, and his disciples asked him privately,

Why could we not drive it out?

He said,

This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer.


The Collect:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


One alone is wise, the Lord most terrible,

seated upon his throne.

–Sirach 1:8 (Revised English Bible)

ter-ri-ble6.  FORMIDABLE causing awe or dread

Encarta World English Dictionary (1999)

“Fear of God” is an expression I hear often.  I wonder how many people who use it know what it means.  “Fear,” in this case, is not terror; it is awe, as in the use of the word “terrible,” which is present (meaning definition #6, quoted above) in many older hymns.  Look at Sirach 1:8 again and compare translations.  The New American Bible reads “awe-inspiring” were the REB says “terrible,” and the New Revised Standard Version has “greatly to be feared.”  The Roman Catholic version of the Good News Translation, Second Edition (1992), reads:

There is only one who is wise,

and we must stand in awe before his throne.

What, then, is awe?  The best definition I can find comes from the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999):

a feeling of amazement and respect mixed with fear that is often coupled with a feeling of personal insignificance or powelessness

We are all insignificant and powerless relative to God.  This lesson ties into the reading from Mark.  Before I get to that, I need to establish our place in the Markan narrative so far.  The Transfiguration has just happened.  Selected Apostles have seen a manifestation of how significant and powerful Jesus is.  Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain, disciples have tried and failed to heal a boy afflicted by what his culture understood as a demon.  (We would have a clinical diagnosis today in North America, but that is beside the point of the story.)  The disciples tried and failed because they were unprepared and out of their league.  Jesus had not given them this assignment.  These disciples were eager and ineffective beavers, almost certainly motivated, though, by altruism.  (Let us assume the best, given the absence of evidence to think otherwise.)

These disciples felt powerless and insignificant, as did many other members of the crowd.  The Markan Gospel tells us that, as Jesus and his hand-picked Apostles descended the mountain, people looked at him with awe.  Previous chapters in Mark contain stories of our Lord and Savior’s renown, so this account fits neatly with those.  And Jesus does what people believe he can do.  The father believes somewhat that Jesus can cure his son.  The “somewhat” part of this is understandable, given the stress the man must have experienced for years.  But it was enough; it was little yet sufficient.

Jesus was close to God, the source of his power.  (He was also part of God.  Let us not attempt to explain any further, for the Trinity is a beautiful mystery beyond human comprehension.)  And, as Ben Sira tells us in Sirach, one of my favorite books of the Bible, we must stand in awe before God’s throne.  Ben Sira writes that this is God who has created nature and wisdom, personified as a woman.  (This gender personification is appropriate, I think.  Generally speaking, I am more likely to have an intelligent conversation with a woman than with a man.)  Wisdom, Ben Sira, writes, is the original creation, and God has distributed it to everyone, but “without stint” to those who love him.

So all that is good, noble, constructive, and really wise is of God.  This realization need not drive anyone to theocratic leanings and opposition to science and intellectualism, for that negative approach is neither good nor noble nor constructive nor really wise.  As an Episcopalian, I affirm that human reason is a valid prism (along with scripture and tradition) through which to consider matters of faith and theology.  Science is a valid path to much knowledge, and the misuse of scripture to contradict proven reality is an old sin of much of the Church.  For example, when Copernicus (in the 1500s) and Galileo (in the 1600s) argued from observations that the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Catholic Church labeled such ideas heretical.  They cited texts including Psalm 93:2:

He has made the whole world so sure
that it cannot be moved;

Poetry is a poor substitute for astronomy.

To be clear, I state simply that we mere mortals need to know that we are mere mortals who must stand in awe of God, if we are to proceed on solid ground during our spiritual journeys.  This is humility, certainly a virtue.








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Grounded in Love   3 comments

Wedding Rings

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 6:5-17 (Revised English Bible):

Pleasant words win many friends,

and affable talk makes acquaintance easy.

Live at peace with everyone:

accept advice, however, from but one in a thousand.

When you make a friend, begin by testing him,

and be in no hurry to give him your trust.

Some friends are loyal when it suits them

but desert you in time of trouble.

Some friends turn into enemies

and shame you by making the quarrel public.

Another may sit at your table

but in time of trouble is nowhere to be found;

when you are prosperous, he is your second self

and talks familiarly with your servants,

but if you come down in the world, he turns against you

and you will not see his face again.

Hold your enemies at a distance,

and keep a wary eye on your friends.

A faithful friend is a secure shelter;

whoever finds one, finds a treasure.

A faithful friend is beyond price;

there is no measure of his worth.

A faithful friend is an elixir of life,

found only by those who fear the Lord.

Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright,

for he treats a neighbour as himself.

Mark 10:1-12 (Revised English Bible):

On leaving there he came into the regions of Judaea and Transjordan.  Once again crowds gathered round him, and he taught them as was his practice.  He was asked,

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?

The question was put to test him.  He responded by asking,

What did Moses command you?

They answered,

Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife by a certificate of dismissal.

Jesus said to them,

It was because of your stubbornness that he made this rule for you.  But in the beginning, at the creation, “God made them male and female.  That is why a man leaves his father and mother, and is united to his wife, and the two become one flesh.”  It follows that they are no longer two individuals:  they are one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate.

When they were indoors again, the disciples questioned him about this.  He said to them,

Whoever divorces his wife and remarries commits adultery against her; so too, if she divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery.


The Collect:

O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?

Take it to the Lord in prayer;

In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,

Thou wilt find a solace there.

–Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”

Printed in the Cokesbury Worship Hymnal (1938)

Experience has taught me that one knows who one’s friends are when one needs help the most.  Those we think of as friends but who are not really friends reveal their true nature when the chips are down.  These individuals are really hangers-on, I suppose.  But true friends are indeed gifts from God and emissaries thereof.  Count yourself fortunate if you have even one such person in your life, for such individuals demonstrate the best of phileo, or brotherly love.

And who should be better friends than two married people?  That, at least, is the ideal.  With that in mind, let us examine the text of Mark 10:1-12 closely.  Some Pharisees ask Jesus a question as a test of his orthodoxy.  The standard of orthodoxy from which they worked was the Law of Moses.  So consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (Revised English Bible):

If a man has taken a woman in marriage, but she does not win his favour because he finds something offensive in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her, and dismisses her, and if after leaving his house she goes off to become the wife of another man, and this second husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her, and dismisses her, or dies after making her his wife, then her first husband who had dismissed her is not free to her to be his wife again; for him she has become unclean.  This would be abominable to the LORD, and you must not bring sin upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you as your holding.

According to the Law of Moses, only a man could initiate a divorce (on grounds of “something offensive,” which is to say, usually adultery), but, if he did, he had to grant his ex-wife a certificate of divorce so that she could remarry.  This was for the woman’s protection, for society was strongly patriarchal and women were generally economically dependent on men.  The playing field was uneven, with women having fewer rights than men.  A woman could ask for a divorce, but only a man could grant it.

Schools of thought differed on what constituted “something offensive” in the wife.  Adultery was certainly offensive, but some interpreted this condition to apply even to spoiling a dish of food or speaking disrespectfully of in-laws.  Consequently, many men divorced their wives for trivial reasons and place these women at great economic peril.  So Jesus condemned this practice and affirmed the value of women.  Females, he said, are people to cherish; they are things to throw away casually.

This is an apt setting in which to consider New England Puritan family law.  Puritans have a reputation as very strict and humorless people.  I know that they hanged falsely convicted women as witches and crushed an innocent man to death while trying to convince him to confess to being a warlock in 1692-1693, but Puritan family law was more favorable to women than some might guess.  Puritans believed that marriage exists for the sake of the family, and were sufficiently realistic to understand that preservation of the family requires divorce in some cases.  Professor Edmund Morgan, in The Puritan Family (Second Edition, 1966), wrote, “The grounds for divorce, as revealed by the statement of the ministers, were adultery, desertion, and absence for a length of time to be determined by the civil government.”  (page 36)  Wives sued successfully for divorce from husbands who had abandoned them.  (page 37)  Other legally valid causes of divorce were “natural capacities, and insufficiencies,” bigamy, and incest.  (page 35)  In addition, civil law forbade married men and women to strike each other, and courts enforced this rule.  (page 39)  In brief, lawful divorce flowed from one party disregarding a fundamental duty of marriage, as Puritans defined such matters.  The fundamental duties were  “peaceful cohabitation, sexual union and faithfulness, and economic support of the wife by the husband.”  (pages 41-42) The innocent party in the divorce proceeding was free to remarry.  (page 37) These laws treated women like people, not objects.

I know of a United Methodist clergywoman who divorced her first husband on the grounds of attempted murder.  Would any reasonable person deny her that divorce?

There are two parts of the law:  the letter and the spirit.  Clever legalists know how to manipulate the letter of the law to benefit themselves while violating the spirit of the law.  But let us honor the spirit of the law.  Let us respect one another and treat each other as human beings with dignity, people nobody has the right to throw away casually and place at undue risk.







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Good Priorities and Bad Priorities   2 comments

Above:  Logo of Lehman Brothers, a Firm Defunct Since 2008

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 5:1-8 (Revised English Bible):

Do not rely on your money

and say, “This makes me self-sufficient.”

Do not yield to every impulse you can gratify

or follow the desires of your heart.

Do not say, “I have no master’;

the Lord, you may be sure, will call you to account.

Do not say, “I have sinned, yet nothing happened tome’;

it is only that the Lord is very patient.

Do not be so confident that of pardon

that you pile up sins on sin;

do not say, “His compassion is so great

he will pardon my sins, however many.”

To him belong both mercy and anger,

and sinners feel the weight of his retribution.

Turn back to the Lord without delay,

and do not defer action from one day to the next;

for the Lord’s anger can suddenly pour out,

and at the time of reckoning you will perish.

Do not rely on ill-gotten gains,

for they will not avail on the day of calamity.

Psalm 1 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1 Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,

nor lingered in the way of sinners,

nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

2 Their delight is in the law of the LORD,

and the meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither,

everything they do shall prosper.

4 It is not so with the wicked;

they are like the chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes,

nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the ways of the righteous,

but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Mark 9:42-50 (Revised English Bible):

[Jesus continued,]

If anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.  If your hand causes your downfall, cut if off; it is better for you to enter into life maimed than to keep both hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  If your foot causes your downfall, cut if off; it is better to enter into life crippled than to keep both your feet  and be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes your downfall, tear it out; it is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to keep both eyes and be thrown into hell, where the devouring worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.

Everyone will be salted with fire.

Salt is good; but if the salt loses its saltness, how will you season it?

You must have salt within yourselves, and be at peace with one another.


The Collect:

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, from all things that may hurt us, that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.


Self-reliance is a lie and an illusion.  It is one of the most cherished lies and illusions of my North American culture, where “self-made men” are ideals.  The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as a “self-made man” (or woman); everybody relies on God.  And we humans rely on each other.  What affects one affects another,  immediately or in time.  If we get greedy and reckless, this affects a great many people, hence the old Lehman Brothers logo at the top of this post.

So much for Gordon Gecko and Horatio Alger.  These signify bad priorities.

The reading from Mark is a continuation of the discourse of Jesus in which he states he who wants to the greatest must be the servant of all, and in which he says that anyone who receives a child (a vulnerable and powerless member of society) receives not only Jesus himself but YHWH God.  Then our Lord and Savior engages in hyperbole.  No part of the body causes one to sin, and he is not advocating self-mutilation.  Sin arises from inside ourselves, and the point of the hyperbole is to say to flee from sin.  As Ben Sira reminds us in the first reading, God’s patience does have limits.

And then there are lines about salt.  First we have, “Everyone will be salted with fire.”  This is a reference to salt used on a ritual sacrificial item or animal. As William Barclay observes in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, the salt made the sacrifice acceptable to God.  And fire signifies that which purifies life.  Hence being salted with fire is obeying God and undergoing discipline and the risk (at least the risk) of persecution.

Salt is good; but if the salt loses its saltness, how will you season it?

Salt, in proper quantities, improves the taste of food.  It also preserves food.  Salt was valuable in the ancient world.  Sometimes it was a form of currency, so an underperforming employee was “not worth his salt.”  We Christians, then, are supposed to give to our world a positive flavor and to preserve and promote goodness.  Are you worth your salt?  I cannot answer that question for you, no more than you can answer that question for me.

You must have salt within yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

Salt, in this case, is a metaphor the the purifying Spirit of Christ.  This is not purity of the ritual kind, as the Pharisees practiced.  No, this is the inner variety of purity.  Jesus said that nothing that enters a person defiles (or “makes common”) a person, but that what comes out a person does that.  Ritual purity was about making oneself a member of the spiritual elite, unlike the “impure” rabble.  But Jesus advocated a different understanding of purity:  love, forgiveness, altruism, et cetera.  There is no divine law against such things.  These are good priorities.

The fire will come to you and to me.  Will it consist of flames destroying treasures laid up on earth, or will it be the disciplining fire likened to salt?








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